IIE Blog Opening Minds
IIE Blog Opening Minds

The Power of Women's Education

By: Daniela Kaisth on Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Last week, I had the great privilege to participate in the panel “From Higher Education to Women’s Leadership” convened by the Open a Door Foundation during the 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations. Before an attentive, vocal, and positive audience, I joined Barbara Bylenga from Open a Door and Leo Motiuk from the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund to discuss the impact of higher education for women on solving problems such as poverty and disease and the need to integrate higher education into the next round of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Our moderator was Ruthie Taylor from the Orchid Project, a London-based NGO that is pioneering a highly effective, community-based approach to ending the practice of female genital cutting.

Education Panelists: Ruthie Taylor (moderator), Leo Moutik, Barbara  Bylenga, Semin Wahdat, and Daniela KaisthBut the real star of the show was Simin Wahdat, the very first alumna of Open a Door. Five years ago, the foundation brought her to Bucknell through their unique program that identifies women in post-conflict countries and secures scholarships for undergraduate study at leading institutions in the United States. In an innovative model, each woman is surrounded by up to eight mentors, who help with the college application and scholarship and, once the woman is set to arrive in the United States, with everything from bedding and toiletries for the dorm room to setting goals and achieving them during four years of university.

With poise and authority, Simin told the story of her journey from Afghanistan to the United States, relating the key point in her freshman year when one mentor asked her to set annual goals and a plan for achieving them. Now in graduate school at East Mennonite Peace University and working as a legislative fellow in the office of Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Simin is leading an effort to lobby for the political rights of women in Afghanistan beyond 2015, when the United States is set to withdraw all troops.

Education Panelists: Ruthie Taylor (moderator), Leo Moutik, Barbara  Bylenga, Semin Wahdat, and Daniela KaisthMost importantly, Simin talked about preparing for return to Afghanistan. She has one simple goal: a voice at the policy table for Afghan women by Afghan women. In an earlier trip home, she found herself literally the only woman at the table as a group of men from government and the community discussed policies towards women. In a culturally appropriate way, she found and asserted her voice and, eventually, won over the group. One man told her as their work was complete, “I would like my sister to be just like you.”

The power of women’s leadership is what drives several key initiatives at the Institute of International Education, including IIE’s Higher Education Readiness (HER) program, being piloted in Ethiopia, and We-Tech, an IIE-led initiative being piloted in Africa and India. With goals to give girls access to higher education, technology training, and leadership skills, these innovative programs are investing in a resource essential to our future: the education of women and girls.

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  • Diana Everman said:
    3/20/2014 12:07 AM

    WOW! That is an amazing story of a very courageous woman! I am so excited for her and that we have assisted her in helping her change the world for other women like her as well. Way to go "Open the Door" foundation!

  • Swaran Pratap said:
    3/20/2014 11:50 PM

    I fully agree with the conclusion of the seminar that unless girls are educated, there will be no improvement in family, society , and ultimately in the country.Women are the strong and main pillars of any community who may not be leaders, but once united are capable of fighting brutal sanctions, both physical and emotional against them(forced by male dominated society for centuries) Need of the day is, women should be made aware of their plight, injustice, exploitation and illiteracy. They be provided with liberal education, leadership,training, resources, opportunity, and Political Will to improve themselves.
    I do appreciate the efforts of IIE, likewise International organizations, Philanthropists, and others who are doing commendable work for this mission. Unfortunately the fact remains that unless the Governments of each and every country exercises their WILL to educate women of their countries, it will be a long drawn battle for all of us.

  • Aimee Thostenson said:
    3/26/2014 2:00 PM

    It's worth noting that Congresswoman Betty McCollum is a graduate of St. Catherine University, one of the largest universities for women in the USA. I am so glad to hear that Simin is a legislative fellow in her office.

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For more than nine decades, the Institute of International Education has been at the forefront of international education. The Opening Minds blog is IIE’s take on how this field continues to change. Here the Institute’s leaders will explore international educational exchange, global student mobility, institutional partnerships, international development, and other topics and trends that are shaping higher education around the world.


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